The Mouth of a Sailor: Phrases Coined by Seamen

Language is strange. We reiterate certain phrases and words time and time again, without ever knowing where they came from or what they once meant. This is natural. Language changes over time and phrases and words morph into things very much unlike what they were expected to mean. That’

s why uncovering the origins of some words is so fascinating. These are some of the most interesting phrases that actually came from a super-specific domain: Sailing.


Feeling Blue

Boat with blue sail in the sea

Gettyimages/ Zhang Zhen/ Moments


Melancholy can be such a sweet thing. Historically, some of the most commonplace phrases to express such feelings of sadness have been the timeless ‘feeling blue’ and ‘getting the blues’. Needless to say that the phrase took off so much that there’s an entire genre of heartfelt, somber music named after it. Yet, what is less known is that the phrase stems from marine-lingo. Returning ships that lost their captain mid-voyage, the crew would raise blue flags and paint the hull in blue as they docked in their home port.


Pipe Down

Man blowing Boatswain Pipe

Via Wikimedia Commons


Another unexpectedly nautical phrase. Parents, teachers, and other disgruntled agents of authority have been demanding that restless children ‘pipe down’ seemingly since the dawn of time. The phrase refers to the nautical practice of the boatswain giving the ‘lights out’ signal to the rest of the crew. The boatswain would blow on his pipe, otherwise known as a Bosun’s Whistle, to convey certain messages. The last whistle of the day meant that the ship was converting into night-mode and that the crew should, in our own words, “be quiet and go to bed”.


Son of a Gun

Father and son holding hands on a ship

Gettyimages/ Stringer/ Getty Image News


The fact that this phrase has stood the test of time is nothing short of incredible. It really is a peculiar set of words when you think about it. The phrase originally denoted those who were the sons of military men (the military men being the ‘guns’). Seeing as the British navy once allowed women to live onboard the ship, any child born mid-cruise was termed a ‘son of a gun’. Another possible meaning for the ‘gun’ part of this phrase comes from the reluctance of sailors to adopt the role of the father: Unclaimed, de-facto orphan children would be termed ‘sons of guns’, seeing as that nobody else claimed

to be their father.


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